John Edgar Wideman | Critical Essay by James Robert Saunders

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Edgar Wideman.
This section contains 3,777 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Sven Birkerts

SOURCE: "The Art of Memory," in New Republic, Vol. 207, Nos. 4,043 and 4,044, July 13 and 20, 1992, pp. 42-44.

Birkerts is a noted critic and author of several books, including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1995). In the following review, he praises The Stories of John Edgar Wideman and The Homewood Books, calling Wideman "one of our very finest writers."

Success comes in different ways to different writers. Some may crash their way through with a big first book, and then spend years, even decades, trying to fulfill the promise. Others appear, disappear, and later come stumbling back. Then there are those who stoke a slow and steady fire, waiting for readers and critics to catch up with them. This has been John Edgar Wideman's way—though of course these things don't happen by design. To a large degree they just happen. The writer writes, publishes, and hopes that readers will buy what he has to sell.

Wideman, the author now of seven novels, three collections of stories and Brothers and Keepers (1984) a personal documentary that is probably his best-known work, has been rewarded mostly with honors and reputation-building accolades. Alongside the fireworks of writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, his public reception has been downright humble. There are reasons for this. Wideman's prose is more demanding and his subject matter is less sexy. And black women writers have a much larger constituency of readers than their male counterparts.

But Wideman's train has been running on its own schedule, and it is pulling into the station. This is not so much because his newest work marks any special departure or culmination, but because the happy circumstance of two major gatherings, in The Homewood Books and The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, suddenly discloses the heft and value of what he has been doing all these years. The career has attained critical mass. Wideman is finally ready to fill the gaping hole marked "leading African-American male writer."

I understand that when I invoke Morrison and Walker as yard-stick figures for gauging Wideman's public reception, I consciously perpetuate what might be called the "segregationist" principle, according to which African-American writers are discussed alongside and in terms of one another. This, I realize, promotes the two culture split. But in truth there are two cultures, even though the greater part of, say, Morrison's or Walker's readership is probably white. The racial distinction is important. The explosion of African-American writing over the past few decades is forging a public literary culture where almost none existed before. At long last a comprehensive picture is emerging of what it is like and has been like to be black in this country. Each act of witness and exposure makes it easier for the next writer to step forward.

Interestingly, few of these works deal overtly with the encounter of black and white. They are, far more, testaments about black life within a fundamentally divided society. It is as if the excavation of the home turf must precede the interracial depictions (and indictments) that are sure to follow. And so long as this is the case, and so long as white writers concern themselves overwhelmingly with white characters in their fiction, the two-tier situation is likely to persist. At present it seems a necessary, if not a good, thing.

The core of Wideman's output has now been laid out conveniently before us. The Homewood Books comprise Damballah (1981), Hiding Place (1981), and Sent For You Yesterday (1984). The last two are novels, while Damballah, not so very different in texture or presentation, is billed as a story collection. All three, at Wideman's own instigation, were published as paperback originally—this marks their hardcover baptism. The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, meanwhile, offers new work in All Stories Are True, and also includes the author's two other books of stories, Fever (1989) and Damballah.

Damballah is the linking element here. It is also, as it happens, the best place to begin reading the Wideman archive. For in these loosely linked narratives we not only meet the presiding figures of the author's imagination, but we also encounter in their first formulation the anecdotes and legends that will surface—fleshed out or told from other vantages—in the other books. Wideman is not an inventor. He has little of the fabulist in him and could never spin the kinds of webs that Morrison spins. He is, rather, a writer of very specific witness. He writes what he knows, and what he knows—the world bounded in his nutshell—is the family and kinship network of Pittsburgh's Homewood section. Homewood is a small place, a few dozen raggedy streets, but when seen with the historian's, or genealogist's, optic and inhabited by a spirit of high empathic susceptibility, it is place enough. Through his laminations of detail and his cunning manipulation of echoes, Wideman accomplishes for his Pittsburgh what William Kennedy has for his Albany; he fixes his place to the page as a permanent, and in many ways a universal, habitation.

"Damballah" is an ancient African divinity, and as part of the epigraph citation (from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti) has it: "One song invoking Damballah requests that the 'Gather up the Family.'" Which is, in a sense, just what Wideman does, not only in this work but in his entire oeuvre. The complex family tree that he places, before the test leaves no doubt that these are his own people, and that the stories, while allowing, a few liberties, are true. What makes this work fiction is the author's way of burrowing into the identities of his various characters.

For Wideman, gathering the family does not mean setting out its extended tale in any chronological fashion. Quite the reverse: Wideman pursues the logic of intimate narration. That is, he stitches together the anecdotes from the family hoard, but does so as an insider would, dispensing with explanatory transitions and cutting back and forth through time in a way that almost assumes familiarity with the big picture. If there is a density about Wideman's page, it has less to do with stylistic complexity—though he does write a packed and muscular prose—than with the reader's need to keep scrambling for a new space-time foothold.

Damballah is the source book, even though many of the characters and incidents will only take on their full significance later, as passages in other books reinscribe their centrality. Here we first read about John French and Freeda Hollinger, Wideman's grandparents, who married and in the early 1900s had four children, one of whom, Lizabeth, is the author's mother. "Lizabeth, The Caterpillar Story" recounts a key episode. Freeda sits rocking a young Lizabeth, on her lap, telling her a story about a caterpillar, when she suddenly sees her husband coming along the alley. She also sees that the man behind him has pulled a gun. Freeda promptly crashes her fist through the windowpane, alerting John French to danger, and thereby earning the scar that becomes a kind of bead on the family rosary. While nothing overtly tragic has happened, the moment captures something essential about the family's life: the nimbus of danger that John French wears, the resourcefulness and domestic protectiveness that Freeda embodies. The afternoon takes its place as one of the essential tales in the family repertoire.

Lizabeth, as a girl, loves to sit in Freeda's lap, and loves to listen to her reminisce about early days in Homewood, the times when "Cassina Way nothing but dirt. Crab apple trees and pear trees grew where you see all them shacks." And Wideman in his turn loves to dizzy the reader with unexpected time switches, as in this parenthetical aside:

Lizabeth needs her mother's voice to make things real. (Years later when she will have grandchildren of her own and her mother and father both long dead Lizabeth will still be trying to understand why sometimes it takes someone's voice to make things real. She will be sitting in a room and the room full of her children and grandchildren and everybody eating and talking and laughing but she will be staring down a dark tunnel and that dark, empty tunnel is her life …)

The cadences map the circlings and repetitions of intimate discourse; they gradually connect us with the indescribable potency that lies at the core of all family life.

If the focus of the early stories falls on John French and Freeda and Lizabeth, the later pieces bring a more distressing present into view. It is a tragedy in the life of the real Wideman family that Robby, the author's younger brother, was arrested in 1976 for his part in a robbery, a crime that left one man dead at the scene. Wideman gave the event full-length treatment in his Brothers and Keepers, but it has obviously haunted his fiction-writing imagination as well. Indeed, as Wideman wrote in that book:

At about the time I was beginning to teach Afro-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, back home on the streets of Pittsburgh Robby was living through the changes in black culture and consciousness I was reading about and discussing with my students in the quiet of the classroom…. I was trying to discover words to explain what was happening to black people. That my brother might have something to say about these matters never occurred to me.

By the time he wrote Damballah, however, he had discovered the words. In the story "Tommy," Wideman plants himself for the first time in his brother's shoes, summoning up the rage and confusion that spawned the crime and accompanied the terrified escape attempt. He pushes in past the Black Power slogans of the day, to expose the looks and feel of a changed world. What was once a rough but cohesive community is now, at least in Tommy's eyes, a ravaged place from which hope has been barred. Drugs and violence, familiar specters of our own day, tyrannize the streets. It is the most dizzying time switch of all, the bisection of the molten flow of memory by the jagged tremors of a new urban reality. Tommy has not been able to escape as his brother did. Homewood comes to us filtered through his sense of entrapment:

It was a bitch in the world. Stone bitch, Feeling like Mister Tooth Decay crawling all sweaty out of the gray sheets. Mom could wash them every day, they still be gray. Like his underclothes. Like every mother fucking thing they had and would ever have. Doo Wah Diddy. The rake jerked three or four times through his bush. Left there as a decoration and weapon. You could fuck up a cat with those steel teeth. You could get the points sharp as needles. And draw it swift as Billy the Kid.

"Tommy" lays the ground for Hiding Place, the novel that was published the same year as Damballah. Hiding Place unfolds in a fairly simple contrapuntal narration. One line belongs to Bess, an old woman identified on the family tree as having been born in the 1880s (she is old enough to remember Sybela Owens, who escaped from slavery and made her way to Pittsburgh, where she and a man named Charlie Bell had twenty children and founded the Homewood dynasty). Bess lives alone in a derelict shack high up on Bruston Hill, the original family site, where she potters about and continues to mourn Eugene, her one son who died in the last days of the Pacific war.

The other line belongs to Tommy, who has taken refuge from the law in Bess's woodshed. The two are as unlike as can be—the wizened old survivor and the gangly young man with his towering Afro and the "fat nobby-toed shoes with heels as high as a woman's." But behind the harshness of their interchanges we can locate the slightest filament of family tenderness. As Bess mutters to herself in one telling passage (Tommy has fallen asleep in her kitchen): "Crazy as a bedbug but that don't make no nevermind cause I know all about you. Seen them rabbits in your eyes and grave-dust on them long feet. Where else you gon be but out there in my shed?" Wideman merely suggests the connection between Tommy and Bess's long-dead son; we feel it as the lightest prickling on the skin.

Sent For You Yesterday takes yet another vantage on the place and time of Homewood. Here Wideman, speaking as "Doot" (one of his many family nicknames), introduces his uncle Carl (Lizabeth's older brother), recreating scenes from Carl's boyhood friendship with Brother Tate, a piano-playing albino black, and Lucy, the hardluck woman who has become his companion. Carl is a one-time drug user now reformed into a drinker, but the book is not about his habits or vices. Rather, we follow the slow, sad trolling of his memory and the jumbled processional of the many eras of his life. Doot is there to observe and record:

At certain moments Carl pauses. His eyes turn inward and he's listening rather than telling his story. The words stop. Nothing moves but his vacant eyes searching somewhere for something that will help him continue his tale, complete the frozen gesture. He's telling his own story, he knows his story better than anybody else, but in the long pauses as he sits motionless on a barstool in the Velvet Slipper, he's waiting for a witness. A voice to say amen. waiting for one of the long gone old folks to catch his eye nod to him and say Yes. Yes. You got that right, boy.

And on it goes, the drift of time, the sudden flaring forth of the bygone. Out of the back-and-forth shuttling, out of the constant traffic with the sensuous particulars of the then and the now, Homewood rises as if seen through a stere-opticon. The sheer abundance of its moods and vistas prohibits any simple tallying of themes. The books are, hackneyed as this may sound, about life: about making do in adversity, about the myriad ways in which people love, fight, celebrate, sin, repent…. Men and women are seen into with equal acuity and presented with compassion. Wideman's whole enterprise of recollecting and reanimating the past arises from a deep, one might even say scourging, love.

Since the completion of the Homewood cycle, Wideman has been working with new modes and approaches. With Brothers and Keepers he shifted his narrative vantage a few degrees to write the nonfiction account of his brother's crime, sifting the documentary portions together with his own anguished musings about the divergence of fates within one family. In 1989 he published Fever, another collection of stories. And the very next year came Philadelphia Fire, a bewilderingly fragmented but lyrically intense novel about one man's search, in the wake of the MOVE bombings, for clues about his own and his city's compromised past. Wideman was reaching for new material, trying to break the spell of his history with more urgent bulletins from the present. It was as if he had decided that however inexhaustible his store of material, he could not keep filling in his Homewood portrait for the rest of his writing life.

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, unlike The Homewood Books, is arranged in reverse chronological order. The newest work, the previously unpublished All Stories Are True, is positioned first, followed by Fever; Damballah anchors the gathering. As it happens, the most powerful stories are the ones that carry the Homewood echo: Wideman is at his best when he culls directly from his experience. The tour de force of All Stories Are True is "Backseat," an extended work that braids together vignettes about the life of his dying grandmother with memories of his own sexual initiation. His return to the grandmother's house sparks up memories of his first lover, a girl named Wanda who was the daughter of his grandmother's tenant. The prose is dazzling. Wideman telescopes the whole world of Homewood into his sweeping sentences; he runs the keyboard past to present and back with true stylistic dash, culminating in a burst of sexual surprise regained:

What I wasn't ready for was the way things speeded up and tangled up, her body with mine, mine with hers, legs, hair, fingers, touching and moaning, little increments of mixed-up back-and forth sallies, then a landslide, stuff I'd only imagined or read in stolen paperbacks, or tried on myself locked in the bathroom or day-dreamed under the covers when I thought my younger brother Otis had finally stopped flopping and farting for the night and was snoring himself to oblivion on his side of the bed. Her smells and wetness, squeezing, opening. Starting slowly inch by inch, amazed at what I was seeing, at how simple it was once you got started, and trying to prolong, imprint, and hurry at the same time everything new and incredible and scaring the shit out of me while I enjoyed it to death.

The past-obsession of "Backseat" is an exception. By and large the stories that draw on the author's life have a present-day edge. The title piece is a heartbreaking account of visits by Wideman and his mother to the prison where Wideman's brother is serving his term. And "Signs" narrates the chilling stages in the persecution of a young graduate student by a phantom figure who leaves notes and signs for her to find, with messages like Nig bitch go home. Another story, "What He Saw," restages a terrifying interlude during a visit to South Africa. We find Wideman vigorously contesting the gravity that kept pulling him back into the realm of family legend.

While the stories feel a bit thinner than the earlier material—they lack the sepia lyricism that the past confers—they are redeemed by the relevance of their racial insights. Squarely, and without histrionics, Wideman communicates the gradations of fear and hopelessness felt by his characters. Racism exists and will not soon disappear. As Kendra, the student in "Signs," realizes after finding a Whites Only notice affixed to the bathroom in the grad dorm:

You couldn't just breeze by it. No more than you could breeze by an old lover in the cafeteria in the morning having coffee with another woman. You were entangled. Like her toes in the faucet. Whatever you did, you were affecting the temperature of the water. Toes twisting or toes frozen, you implicated.

Blacks and whites alike are caught in this tense and baffled entanglement. The segregationist ethos no longer works. For Kendra the dissonance becomes overwhelming—denial erupts and she ends by convincing herself that the incidents never happened. In another story, "A Voice Foretold," the black narrator accompanies a white photographer into a tenement and tries to overcome his hatred of him, later conceding: "I share his hurt, his compassion, curiosity, the weight of memory he wears around his neck on a strap." There are no easy stances, and few simplifying bromides. A keen sense of sorrow and a will to understand the alien perspective mitigate what might in other hands emerge as a chronicle of hopelessness.

Alas, it must be said that some of the other stories, in this grouping as well as in Fever, have at times a strained, literary feel. We find ourselves in the hands of a virtuoso stylist with an idea, one who is prone (Wideman was an all-Ivy League basketball star) to dribble behind the back when no one is covering him. "Everybody Knew Bubba Riff," for instance, spins a ten-page story out of a single hemorrhaging sentence: "Voices are a river you step in once and again never the same Bubba here you are dead boy dead dead dead nigger with spooky Boris Karloff powder caked on your face boy …" And "Surfiction," in Fever, fashions a collage from a professor's extratextual meanderings and a post-structuralist dissection of a work by Charles Chestnutt. There are some intriguing fillips, but the piece hardly stands up alongside the author's more straightforward offerings.

As Damballah reminds us, Wideman may not be a master of the classic short story, but he is a sublime storyteller. When he works in extended sequences, free from the demands of formal plot architecture, he is unexcelled. And this collection, my cavils aside, shows the writer working at full muscle, tunneling through the past to connect with the ore rifts of generational experience, but also exposing rifts of the other kind—the societal rifts that have defined so much about black culture in this country and elsewhere. Reading Wideman's collections presents us with a graph of atmospheric changes in black cultural life. Our job is to chalk on the overlay graph, the one that shows the political and economic depredations by the powers that be. As Homewood has gone, so has the nation.

As I suggested at the outset, there has been for some years a vacancy at the table of African-American letters. In one sense, of course, it is nonsensical to speak in terms of "leading" this and "foremost" that. But we do it anyway. And while any number of black women writers have staked a claim to the distaff title, the males have not generated a similar excitement. We have had no Ellisons, Wrights, or Baldwins in recent memory. Writers, like Ishmael Reed, John A. Williams, Charles Johnson, David Bradley, and Al Young have all done vital work in fiction, but none has manifested that cumulative solidity—not yet—to make them inheritors of the mantle.

On the basis of the gathered evidence, I would say that John Edgar Wideman has. Though he has not sought the public spokesman's role, he has certainly been having his say. His depictions have evolved into an ever more comprehensive picture of black American life in our time, and they have done so sanely and empathically. The work is balanced—humanly balanced—with extreme scenarios taking their place alongside the evocations of more prosaic domesticity. Through it all there is a feeling of life pushing on with unstemmed momentum.

Wideman may not be a writer bent upon positions and polemics. He feels too strongly the novelist's traditional piety before the workings of fate in individual lives. This does not mean, however, that he cannot get angered and righteous about the miasma of our racial relations. (Philadelphia Fire crackles with its narrator's rage at the hypocrisy and corruption of the white power structure.) But Wideman's vision charges him to make constant provision for love and goodness, too. The urge is toward inclusiveness, not accommodation. He is building a picture of the world the hard way—person by person, life by life. He is now our leading black male writer and (casting the nonsense of these divisions aside) one of our very finest writers, period.

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This section contains 3,777 words
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